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Monday, June 1, 2009

The Importance of Topic Sentences

When you read a paragraph and know exactly what that paragraph will cover, you’ve more likely than not just read a good topic sentence.   It’s such a simple sentence to write, yet so many people leave it out of their writing.   But I’m getting ahead of myself…

What is a topic sentence?

In short, a topic sentence is a sentence that sums up the main point of the entire paragraph in which it is contained.  It is most often the first sentence of the paragraph, but doesn’t necessarily have to be. 

Take the following paragraphs from a review I found online about The Day After Tomorrow (warning: beware of spoilers if you haven’t yet seen the movie):

Paleoclimatologists are notoriously brave and of course very fit.  Nary a one of us would hesitate to jump a widening crevasse - twice - while wearing arctic gear - to recover some ice cores which would take 2-3 hours to re-drill.  We're watching out for *your* tax dollars.  Score one for the movie.

I bolded the topic sentence of the paragraph to make it easier to see. Notice that the main point of the entire paragraph is to poke fun at the courage of paleoclimatologists. The first sentence introduces that concept and the remaining sentences in the paragraph act as examples to support it.

Here’s another paragraph from the same review. Again, I'm bolding the topic sentence to make it easier to see.

The silliest thing in the movie is probably intentional, and has has nothing to do with science. Our spunky group of survivors (three high school students, a street person and his dog, a librarian, etc) are stuck in the NY public library, their only source of heat an old fireplace. They have to burn something, but what? The camera pans lovingly over long wooden tables, chairs, paneling. But what do they burn? Books, books and only books. And it's a roaring fire. True, they do burn the tax code first.

I chose this paragraph because it demonstrates that you can give a clear indication of what the main point of the paragraph will be in the topic sentence without actually stating what it is. "The silliest thing in the movie" turns out to be the fact that the characters burn books first when other longer lasting  sources of fuel were all around them. By unveiling what what actually burned (books) only after describing in detail all the burnable materials in the library, the author builds the level of sarcasm.

Don’t think that topic sentences make you “give it all away.”  You’re the author – you control how much information to give your readers.  Topic sentences just give your words a general direction so the reader doesn’t start asking himself “Why are you telling me this?” (Even with topic sentences, there’s no guarantee that he won’t still ask himself that question.  If he does, at least you’ll know it’s not because you don’t have topic sentences.)

An Exercise in Topic Sentences

Read the following paragraph from a student's essay and try and see if you can sense what's wrong with it.  I’ll give you a hint: try and find the topic sentence.

Mallard is a lady with major heart problems.  She is a caring and loving person. She is the main character of the story and is the one who everyone worries about.  Josephine is Mallard's sister; she cares a lot for her sister and loved her.  Josephine was there to help and support Mallard. Richard is the best friend of Mallard's passed husband.  He broke the news to Mallard and was there for support.

At first glance, there’s nothing wrong with this paragraph.  It’s grammatically correct (well, except for a few shifts in tense) and, all in all, a good description of the characters of the story we were discussing.   Reading the paragraph, though, I felt as though something were missing…

If this paragraph were in response to a question I asked, say “Describe the characters in the story,” there wouldn’t be a problem.  I would know immediately what the point of the paragraph was because the question would be right there above it.

In essays, though,  you never just write a single paragraph.  So if a paragraph appears in the middle of a five page paper, you have to let your reader know what it’s doing there.  Add this sentence to that paragraph and see how it suddenly has a purpose:

The characters in the story exist to set into motion the plot’s events. Mallard is a lady with major heart problems…etc.

Topic sentences get more attention when they’re absent than they do when they’re present. 

Photo credit: Aresauburn(TM)


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